Obituary: Robert Liddell
Saturday 25 July 1992
ROBERT LIDDELL, who spent most of his working life abroad, first in Cairo and Alexandria and then in Athens, was, wrote Patrick White, 'one of those novelists who sit quietly writing classics over a lifetime.'
He was born in 1908 in Tunbridge Wells, the son of a retired army officer who was later in the service of the Egyptian government in Cairo, where Robert and his younger brother Donald spent their early childhood. When in 1914 their mother died in England, the boys lived for three years in the care of her two sisters. This was the happiest time of their childhood and the two aunts in Liddell's novel The Aunts (1987) are based on these relatives.
Their father, Major John Liddell, remarried in the autumn of 1916. His new wife was born Theresa Rottenburg, from a family of German origin but domiciled in Britain. Robert and his brother soon became disenchanted with their stepmother: Robert based the central character in his scathing novel Stepsons (1959) on her. In Liddell's own words,
I spent my early winters in Cairo with my brother in the only home we ever shared with both my parents. In 1917 (owing to family intrigues) we were removed from the kind care of our aunts, and placed with other relations in a country house where we were very unhappy.
After a period at Ashdown House Preparatory School, Liddell was sent to Haileybury College and subsequently to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on a classical scholarship. At Oxford he became friendly with Barbara Pym.
In the period 1933-38 he was assistant in the Department of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library. In 1940 he became a lecturer for the British Council in Athens, and following the German invasion of Greece in 1941 he went to Egypt, where he lived for 12 years. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Alexandria and from 1941 to 1951 at the University of Cairo. Donald Liddell was killed in action in 1943, and Robert returned to Greece in 1953, employed at the University of Athens until 1972. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1965.
Liddell did not revisit England after 1947 because of his strained relationship with his stepmother. However, he maintained close ties with English friends and writers who visited him in Athens.
Liddell's first novel, The Almond Tree, appeared in 1938. This was followed at intervals by a number of other books. The Last Enchantments (1948) is regarded by a number of critics as the best fictionalised account of Oxford of that era. The book is partly autobiographical and the central character is based on a real woman who bettered herself by marrying into a famous aristocratic and literary family. Liddell's fear of identification induced him to call Oxford by the fictional name of Christminster.
Unreal City, set in Cairo and partly based on the Egyptian poet Cavafy, appeared in 1952. Subsequently, he wrote a number of literary studies and travel books, the best of which are A Treatise on the Novel (1947), Aegean Greece (1954), The Novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett (1955) and a critical biography of Cavafy (1974). Due to his absence abroad, Liddell's literary reputation suffered an eclipse for many years until the mid-1980s when Hilary Spurling and Francis King introduced me to Liddell's work with the manuscript of Elizabeth and Ivy, the story of Liddell's friendship with Ivy Compton-Burnett and the writer Elizabeth Taylor. After this came Liddell's last novel, The Aunts (1987), which was widely praised. It was followed by a translation of Ferdinand Fabre's satirical masterpiece The Abbe Tigre (1988), and then A Mind at Ease: Barbara Pym and her novels (1989) and Twin Spirits: the novels of Emily and Anne Bronte (1990). His literary reputation was further resuscitated by the re-issue of The Last Enchantments, in 1991, and Stepsons, in 1992. The Aunts, The Last Enchantments and Stepsons form a trilogy based on Liddell's family and experiences. The critics rediscovered Liddell as an outstanding twentieth-century writer.
Although I never met Robert Liddell, I corresponded with him. He was unfailingly courteous and helpful and was pleased at the serious attention that was paid to his work. Until quite recently he was a regular partygoer at the British Embassy and the British Council in Athens, where he retained his ties with his native country.
With the exception of Unreal City, his novels depict English country life. He was a master of dialogue. Liddell declined an invitation to write an autobiography. In a letter to me he wrote:
I am by nature rather retiring, and love privacy - and dislike 'name-dropping'. I think such a book would be pretentious from a writer as little known as I am. I destroy letters when I have answered them and have always encouraged my correspondents to destroy any letters from me.
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